WASHINGTON—The federal law that President Bush signed early Monday in an effort to prolong Terri Schiavo's life appears to contradict a right-to-die law that he signed as Texas governor, prompting cries of hypocrisy from congressional Democrats and some bioethicists.
In 1999, then-Gov. Bush signed the Advance Directives Act, which lets a patient's surrogate make life-ending decisions on his or her behalf. The measure also allows Texas hospitals to disconnect patients from life-sustaining systems if a physician, in consultation with a hospital bioethics committee, concludes that the patient's condition is hopeless.
Bioethicists familiar with the Texas law said Monday that if the Schiavo case had occurred in Texas, her husband would be the legal decision-maker and, because he and her doctors agreed that she had no hope of recovery, her feeding tube would be disconnected.
"The Texas law signed in 1999 allowed next of kin to decide what the patient wanted, if competent," said John Robertson, a University of Texas bioethicist.
While Congress and the White House were considering legislation recently in the Schiavo case, Bush's Texas law faced its first high-profile test. With the permission of a judge, a Houston hospital disconnected a critically ill infant from his breathing tube last week against his mother's wishes after doctors determined that continuing life support would be futile.
"The mother down in Texas must be reading the Schiavo case and scratching her head," said Dr. Howard Brody, the director of Michigan State University's Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences. "This does appear to be a contradiction."
Brody said that, in taking up the Schiavo case, Bush and Congress had shattered a body of bioethics law and practice.
"This is crazy. It's political grandstanding," he said.
Bush's apparent shift on right-to-die decisions wasn't lost on Democrats. During heated debate on the Schiavo case, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., accused Bush of hypocrisy.
"It appears that President Bush felt, as governor, that there was a point which, when doctors felt there was no further hope for the patient, that it is appropriate for an end-of-life decision to be made, even over the objection of family members," Wasserman Schultz said. "There is an obvious conflict here between the president's feelings on this matter now as compared to when he was governor of Texas."
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan termed Wasserman Schultz's remarks "uninformed accusations" and denied that there was any conflict in Bush's positions on the two laws.
"The legislation he signed (early Monday) is consistent with his views," McClellan said. "The (1999) legislation he signed into law actually provided new protections for patients ... prior to the passage of the ྟ legislation that he signed, there were no protections."
Wasserman Schultz stuck by her remarks when told of McClellan's comments.
"It's a fact in black and white," she said. "It's a direct conflict on the position he has in the Schiavo case."
Tom Mayo, a Southern Methodist University Law School associate professor who helped draft the Texas law, said he saw no inconsistency in Bush's stands.
"It's not really a conflict, because the (Texas) law addresses different types of disputes, meaning the dispute between decision-maker and physician," he said. "The Schiavo case is a disagreement among family members."
Bush himself framed the Schiavo decision this way Monday.
"This is a complex case with serious issues, but in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wise to always err on the side of life," the president said during a Social Security event in Tucson, Ariz. He didn't mention the 1999 Texas law.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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